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Musk’s suspension of journalists could embolden authoritarians, free speech experts warn

Free speech watchdogs said despots and authoritarian regimes may see Twitter CEO Elon Musk's actions as an invitation to manipulate him.
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Free speech experts and human rights organizations blasted Elon Musk's decision to suspend several high-profile journalists from Twitter on Thursday, with some raising concerns that the tech tycoon has created an opening for authoritarian regimes to intensify their crackdowns on independent reporting and political dissent.

In interviews, academics who specialize in freedom of expression and technology expressed worries that despots and authoritarian leaders around the world might sense an opportunity and ask Musk to help squash the work of journalists and activists, potentially as a condition of doing business in their countries.

"The worst governments are already going to suppress speech," said David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine and the former free speech watchdog for the United Nations between 2014 and 2020. How would Musk respond "if a government said, 'Look, if you want to have a good business relationship with us, we need you to crack down on your platform being a place for criticism of us,'" he posited. "That's going to put him in a harder position."

"I think he might be more willing to take those kinds of steps that are, frankly, deeply problematic in regimes where there's no real independent media and the place people go to share information is Twitter," he said.

On Thursday, Twitter suspended the accounts of several reporters who have covered Twitter and Musk, such as Ryan Mac of The New York Times, Donie O'Sullivan of CNN, Drew Harwell of The Washington Post, Matt Binder of Mashable, Micah Lee of The Intercept, Steve Herman of Voice of America, as well as the independent journalists Aaron Rupar, Keith Olbermann and Tony Webster.

When Musk took over the company, he vowed to run Twitter as a self-described free-speech absolutist. He said the reporters were suspended because they violated the platform's new rules banning private jet trackers when they shared information about some of the trackers that had been suspended from the platform, including one that tracked Musk's private jet.

The free speech experts who spoke to NBC News on Friday said Twitter's actions could invite international attempts to manipulate Musk.

"Because, in the U.S., we have a broadly protected First Amendment, and many of these companies are based in the U.S., we don't always think about the international component as much as we should. But there are countries with despotic or unstable rules around speech," said Gautam Hans, an expert on First Amendment law and technology policy who teaches at Cornell University.

"What would happen in other countries with journalists and activists who use Twitter? Would some head of state say, 'Hey, can you do this for my country and prevent public reporting?' It's not clear to me that Elon Musk would resist that kind of pressure," said Hans, who previously worked at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Twitter did not immediately respond to questions about the criticism and whether it would ban accounts of journalists at the request of a foreign government or entity.

Musk's business ties to China drew intense scrutiny after he first announced his intention to acquire Twitter for $44 billion. Experts have expressed deep concerns that his role as the chief executive of Tesla, a firm that has major operations in China, could make him more hesitant to remove Beijing-approved propaganda, state-sponsored misinformation campaigns and other problematic content from Twitter. (The platform is officially blocked in that country.)

In Russia, where access to Twitter is severely restricted, journalistic activity is regularly stifled, making independent reporting increasingly difficult and forcing many reporters to flee — especially after President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and made it a crime to spread what his government describes as "false information" about the war.

Kaye, the former U.N. free speech watchdog, said Musk's behavior reminded him in part of authoritarian leaders who enforce rules against challenging the government or criticizing powerful figures, such as royal family members or regime allies.

"He’s a major, major public figure and there’s a public interest in his utterances, the people he meets with," he said of Musk. "He has to be susceptible to reporting about what he’s doing, who he’s meeting, all that stuff. He’s made a ton of money and embraces a public profile, but he’s unwilling to accept that means reporters will report on him."

Musk faced mounting backlash Friday from other parties as well, including lawmakers, newsroom leaders and civil libertarians in the United States and abroad.

“Twitter is an important space for connection. People’s right to freedom of expression and the freedom to impart information shouldn’t be predicated on whether Musk likes it or not,” Amnesty International said in a statement Friday. “Musk’s latest move illustrates the dangers of unaccountable tech companies having total control over platforms we rely on for news and other vital information.”

PEN America, a literary and human rights organization that includes thousands of authors and journalists, said the suspensions were “alarming” and accused the richest man in the world of “silencing journalists or creating new content regulation rules on a whim, based purely on what he finds inconvenient for him.”

“He has from the start seemed to treat Twitter more like a personal fiefdom than a global public square. Musk can talk about standing for free speech all he wants, but this should make it clear to everyone that what he’s doing is quite the opposite. Twitter should reverse these suspensions, not shut down journalists for doing their jobs,” said Summer Lopez, the chief program officer for PEN America’s free expression initiatives.